The art of getting it write

A new IET book offers advice on the art of successful business communication.

In a busy business life, writing anything can be a chore. There are surely more important things to be done: people to meet, decisions to be made, action to be taken. Yet all of these things and more can be dependent on written communication. A letter or a memo may set up a meeting; a report may present a case and prompt a decision; a proposal may act persuasively to make sure certain action is takes or a particular option is selected.

But reading business papers can be a chore also, and they will not achieve their purpose unless they are read and understood and do their job well enough to prompt the reader to action. Business writing must earn a reading.

You are probably both a reader and writer of business documents. Consider writing with your reader's hat on for a moment. Do you read everything that crosses your desk? Do you read every word of the things you read? Do you read everything from the first word through in sequence, or do you dip into things? Almost certainly the answers make it clear that not all writing is treated equally. Some documents are more likely to be read than others. Of course, some subjects demand your attention. Who ignores a personal note from the managing director? But the fact that some things have to be read does not make their reading any easier or more pleasurable.

Good writing, which means, not least, something that is easy to read and understand, will always be likely to get more attention than sloppy writing. Yet we all know that prevailing standards in this area are by no means universally good.

Why is this? Maybe it is education - or lack of it. Often school assists little with the kind of writing we find ourselves having to do once we are in an organisation. Maybe it is lack of feedback - perhaps managers are too tolerant of what is put in front of them. If more of it were rejected and had to be rewritten, then more attention might be brought to bear on the task.

Habits are important here, too. We all develop a style of writing and may find it difficult to shift away from it. Worse, bad habits may be reinforced by practice. For example the ubiquitous standard document can often be used year after year with no one prepared to say scrap it, even if they notice how inadequate it is.

We can all recognise the really bad report, without structure or style, but with an excess of jargon and convoluted sentences, which prompts the thought, "what is it trying to say?" But such documents do not have to be a complete mess to fail in their purpose. They are inherently fragile. One wrongly chosen word may dilute understanding or act to remove what would otherwise be a positive impression made.

Even something as simple as a spelling mistake - and, no, computer spellcheckers are not infallible - may have a negative effect. I once saw work lost by a consultant who spelt the name of a company as 'diary' rather than 'dairy'. As a very first rule to drum into your subconscious, check, check and check again.

Whether the cause of a document being less good than it should be is major or minor, the damage is the same, and shows that the quality of writing matters.

Whatever the reasons for poor writing may be, suffice to say that, if prevailing standards are low, then there is a major opportunity here for those who better that standard. More so for those who excel. Bad documents might just come back to haunt you
one day.

So, business writing is a vital skill. There may be a great deal hanging on a document's ability to do the job it is intended to do - a decision, a sale, a financial result, a personal reputation. For those who can acquire sound skills in this area, very real opportunities exist. The more you have to write, and the more important the documents you create, then the truer this is. Quite simply, if you write well, then you are more likely to achieve your business goals.

This point cannot be overemphasised. One sheet of paper may not change the world, but - well written - it can influence many events in a way that affects results and those doing the writing.

And you can write well. We may not all aspire to or succeed in writing the great novel, but most people can learn to turn out good business writing. Writing that is well tailored to its purpose and likely to create the effect it intends.

Good business writing need not be difficult. It is a skill that can be developed with study and practice. Some effort may be involved, and certainly practice helps, but it could be worse. Somerset Maugham is quoted as saying "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Business writing does not depend so much on creativity, though this is involved, and it is subject to certain rules. Rules, of course, are made to be broken. But they do act as useful guidelines and can therefore be a help.

What makes good business writing?

Despite predictions about the 'paperless office', offices seem as 'paper-full' as ever. Indeed, as documentation is essentially only a form of communication, this is likely to remain so. However a case is presented, even if there is no paper - as with something sent via email, for example - it has to be written.

With no communication, any organisation is stifled. Without communication, nothing much would happen. Communication - good communication - should oil the wheels of organisational activity and facilitate action. This is true of even the simplest memo, and is certainly so of something longer and more complex, such as a report.

Communication is - inherently - inclined to be less than straightforward. If this is true of tiny communications, how much more potential for misunderstanding does a 25-page report present? With written communication the danger is that any confusion lasts. There is not necessarily an immediate opportunity to check (the writer might be 100 miles away), and a misunderstanding on page 3 may skew the message taken from an entire report.

Once something is in writing any error that causes misunderstanding is made permanent, or at least set in place for a while. The dangers of ill-thought-out writing vary:

  • It may be wrong, but still manage to convey its meaning.

In the bedrooms of one hotel, for instance, there is a notice saying, "in the interest of security, please ensure that your bedroom door is fully closed when entering or leaving your room". It may amuse - and a good trick if you can do it - but it will probably be understood. No great harm done, perhaps, though in a service business any fault tends to highlight the possibility of other more serious faults.

  • It may try too hard to please, ending up giving the wrong impression.

 In one hotel there are signs on the coffee shop tables that say: "Courtesy of Choice: The concept and symbol of 'courtesy of choice' reflect the centuries-old philosophy that acknowledges differences while allowing them to exist together in harmony. 'Courtesy of choice' accommodates the preferences of individuals by offering both smoking and non-smoking areas in the spirit of conviviality and mutual respect." An absurd over-politeness just ends up making the message sound rude - this restaurant has both smoking and non-smoking areas and if you find yourself next to a smoker, tough. It does matter.

  • It may be incomprehensible.

A press release is an important piece of writing. One, quoted in the national press recently, was sent out by the consulting group Accenture. The item commented that Accenture envisioned "A world where economic activity is ubiquitous, unbounded by the traditional definitions of commerce and universal". Er, yes - or, rather, no. The newspaper referred not to the content of the release, only to the fact that it contained a statement so wholly gobbledegook as to have no meaning at all. It is sad when writing is so bad that it achieves less than nothing.

You could doubtless extend such a list of examples extensively. The point here is clear: it is all too easy for the written word to fail. All the above were probably the subject of some thought and checking: but not good enough. Put pen to paper and you step on dangerous ground.

So, the first requirement of good writing is clarity. A good report needs thinking about if it is going to be clear, and it should never be taken for granted that understanding will automatically be generated by what we write.

It is more likely that we will give due consideration to clarity, and give the attention it needs to achieving it, if we are clear about the purpose of any report we may write.

How to write about technology in plain English

Exactly why anything is written is important. This may seem self-evident, yet many reports, for instance, are no more than something 'about' their topic. Their purpose is not clear. Without clear intentions the tendency is for the report to ramble, to go round and round and not come to any clear conclusion.

Documents may be written for many reasons. For example, they may intend to inform, motivate or persuade - any of the intentions listed earlier - and often more than one intention is aimed at, and different messages or emphasis for different people add further complexity.

If a document is to be well received, then it must meet certain expectations of its readers. Before going into these, let us consider generally what conditions such expectations. Psychologists talk about what they call cognitive cost. This is best explained by example. Imagine you want to programme the video recorder. You want to do something that is other than routine, so you get out the instruction book. Big mistake. You open it (try this, you can open it at random) and the two-page spread shouts at you, "This is going to be difficult!" Such a document has what is called a high cognitive cost, rather than appearing inviting; even a cursory look is off-putting.

People are wary of this effect. They look at any document almost expecting reading it to be hard work. If they discover it looks easier and more inviting than they thought (a low cognitive cost), then they are likely to read it with more enthusiasm. What gives people the feeling, both at first glance and as they get further into it, that a document is not to be avoided on principle? 

All of these steps have in common that they can act to make reading easier. Further, they act cumulatively: that is, the more things are right in each of these ways, the clearer the meaning will be. If the impression is given that attention has actively been given to making the reader's task easier, so much the better.

Write better reports

Consider the example of reports. They can influence action. But they also act to create an image of the writer. Reports demand detailed work. Their preparation may, on occasion, seem tedious. They certainly need adequate time set aside for them. But, as the old saying has it, if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well. It may take no more time to prepare a good report than it does to prepare a lacklustre one. So too for any document.

If whatever you write is clear, focused and set out so as to earn a reading, then it is more likely to achieve its purpose; it is also more likely to act positively to enhance the profile of the writer. Both these results are surely worthwhile. But the job still has to be done, the words still have to be put down on paper, and, if you are faced with a blank sheet (or, these days, screen), this can be a daunting task. Go about it the right way and it does become possible. 

Patrick Forsyth runs Touchstone Training & Consultancy, which specialises in marketing, sales and management communication skills. He is the author of the IET's new book in the Management of Technology Series 'The Art of Successful Business Communication. Contact Patrick on

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